The Romance of a Real Book

Elizabeth Bluemle - March 10, 2011

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters where Michael Caine’s character initiates flirtation (okay, yes, with his sister-in-law; not the point here) with a book of poetry. It’s an intimate gift, it’s a risk, it’s personal. It’s romantic. He urges her to read the poem on page 112, e.e. cummings’ poem with the famous lines, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” It moves her and seduces her.
GI Jane is an action movie about a woman trying to break the gender barrier in Navy SEAL training. A series of harrowing experiences pits her against the tough, deeply skeptical Command Master Chief, whom she eventually saves in real battle conditions. At the end of her training, she finds that he’s left his own well-worn copy of a poetry anthology in her locker. Circled in red is D.H. Lawrence’s “Self-Pity:”

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself

This is the poem the commander started every training season with; it was the poem he aimed scornfully at the lone female recruit on her first day. Now, it signifies his admiration and gratitude. No gift could have been more meaningful to its recipient.
I’m sure you get where I’m going here. There is just something about a book passed from one set of hands to another that enhances, even transcends, its contents.
Somehow, I just can’t think that either of the above-mentioned gifts would have packed the same punch if the poem had been emailed, printed out and handed over, or sent as an e-gift. A book has its unique heft and weight and texture; it changes over time, edges softening, pages acquiring evidence of its history with a reader (fingerprints, a drop of spilled orange juice, marginalia). Receiving a book from a new love interest, especially a book from his or her personal collection, is as intimate as receiving a worn piece of clothing, and often more revealing. The book even smells like that person’s life. Best of all, he or she has held it! With those beautiful hands!
Today, a customer came in for a book she is giving as a gift to someone she has a crush on. It was a book of essays on art. “Do you think it’s too… obvious?” she asked. I loved the question, loved particularly the fact that, because of what an exchanged book signifies, the answer to that question could actually be yes.

11 thoughts on “The Romance of a Real Book

  1. Donna Sugg

    I’m all for real books as presents, despite my embrace of my nook & e-ink! Especially for kids: I am reminded of our copy of Good Night Moon, which has funny little smudges all over the last page – remnants of little kiss-prints from our now-teenage daughter kissing the bunny to bed every night! I find even re-reading books from college, with their revealing highlights, reflect my outlook at the time, and I would hate to lose that in the e-book realm. E-books are great for portability: beach books, light mysteries, etc – but anything with substance still requires a REAL book!

  2. Donna Marie Merritt

    This first gift I ever gave my husband was a book. And, in addition to the books I give my kids, I’m known as the “book aunt” with my nieces and nephews, especially for the little ones. As they get into their teens and beyond, I give them gift cards to a bookstore (not quite the same effect, but I want them to choose what they’re interested in at the moment). There is nothing that says love like a book.

  3. Lori

    oh, get over it! e-readers and e-books are here to stay. real books will still be available for those special incestuous and master-chief moments, i’m sure. your anti-tech stance reeks of fogeyism.

  4. Chuck37

    Love this. I feel like I should carry around a copy to show people who think that print is, or should be, dead.

  5. Amanda MacNaughton

    I can’t help remembering my beloved childhood copy of “Misty of Chincoteague.” I was reading the book when cowboys on a cattle drive rode by our house. I rushed out to see the horses. My book was still in my hand, and somehow it got smudged with horse manure. I treasured that smudge! It made it a real live horse book. Now that would never happen with an e-book.

  6. anna

    This post makes me ache with its beauty! The well worn page can never be replaced with a piece of technology…


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